1856: William Bousfield, Calcraft’d

4 comments March 31st, 2010 Headsman

Until the very end of public hanging in 1868 and thereafter in prisons, hangmen were unreliable executioners…

In nearly every year the grim chronicle of bungled executions and lackadaisical hangmen was extended … [William] Calcraft the hangman simply miscalculated the drops required to effect a speedy death. In office since 1829, Calcraft was ‘a mild-mannered man of simple tastes, much given to angling in the New River, and a devoted rabbit fancier’. Nice to rabbits, he had a casual way with people. He hanged them like dogs, it was said. Another dismal apotheosis was reached in the Newgate execution of William Bousfield in 1856. The night before his execution Bousfield* tried to kill himself in his condemned cell by throwing himself into the fire; next morning [March 31, 1856] he had to be carried to the scaffold swathed in bandages. Calcraft was nervous; he had received a letter threatening his assassination. He pulled the bolt to let the drop fall and disappeared hastily into the prison. Astonishingly, Bousfield drew himself up and lodged his feet on the side of the drop. Pushed off by a turnkey, he again found the side of the drop; and yet again. He was defeated only when Calcraft was summoned back to drag on his legs and ‘the strangulation was completed’. In front of an angry crowd, Bousfield gurgled his way to death as church bells rang to celebrate the end of the Crimean War.

After this debacle, they started pinioning the prisoners’ legs to prevent them getting a foothold on the scaffold, removing any hope of preservation to the inscrutable hand of Providence.

* Charles Dickens scribbled a few rambling thoughts on the subject of Bousfield’s trial.

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1840: Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, for the murder of Lord Russell

4 comments July 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1840, a valet was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of his aristocratic employer, Lord William Russell.

This celebrity murder of a former Member of Parliament, septuagenarian patriarch of one of England’s august noble houses, by a member of his household activated all the crime-panic circuits still familiar a couple centuries later.

That of class, of course: the perpetual frisson of animosity between the respectable and those they held in economic servitude, bursting bloodily onto the front pages.

That of foreignness, since Courvoisier was Swiss.

And that ever-popular fear of youth amok, when the 23-year-old claimed inspiration from William Harrison Ainsworth‘s then-popular potboiler about the beloved underclass robber Jack Sheppard.*

Speedy Trial

The valet was quickly on trial for his life; the total time elapsed from Russell’s death to Courvoisier’s own was two months to the day.

But a less hasty schedule might have permitted better investigation, as Courvoisier was well on his way to acquittal with his lawyer’s deft rebuttal of the crown’s entirely circumstantial case.

When police discovered the decisively damning evidence of Russell’s stolen effects midway through the trial, the Swiss man made himself an milepost in the evolution of professional ethics at the bar. Summoning his lawyers, Courvoisier informed them that he was indeed guilty but that he had no intention of pleading guilty to a hanging crime and expected his defense to continue.

Attorney Charles Phillips reluctantly complied, implicating fellow-servant Sarah Mancer as the potentially guilty party. When it became publicly known after the trial that Phillips had become aware of his client’s guilt, he was publicly vilified for the vigor of his representation, e.g., contesting “with violent language the witnesses for the prosecution, whose evidence he [knew to be] true,” and a lively debate among legal types on professional propriety in such an instance ensued.**

Read All About It

None of this availed Benjamin Courvoisier aught. His celebrity was brief, but intense — he even signed an autograph for the sheriff, dating it “the day of my execution,” as he was being pinioned for hanging. Broadsides like these below (links to selections from Harvard Library’s extensive publication of execution broadsides) sold a reported 1.65 million copies. (Source)

Broadside 1

Broadside 2

Broadside 3

Broadside 4

Among the published broadsides are several popular ballads relating to the case — one written to lament the murder, before the apprehension of a suspect; others for the condemned’s execution. One certainly wouldn’t call these great literature, but they’re representative examples of broadside balladry, nearly de rigueuer for scandal-mongering Victorian crime coverage and therefore very relevant for these pages.

COURVOISIER’S LAMENT
(Written by Himself.)

You Christians all of every nation,
A warning take by my sad fate–
For the dreadful crimes that I’ve committed,
I, alas! repent too late.
Only think what I must suffer,
And the death which I must undergo–
I cannot rest by day or night,
My heart’s so full of grief and woe.

My parents they were poor — but honest —
And brought me up in virtuous ways;
And never, ’till this sad occurrence,
Did I embitter their fond days.
But now, alas! quite broken-hearted,
My friends and family must be,
To think that I soon must quit
This world for a long Eternity.

My Master was a Nobleman–
Lord William Russell was his name;
Beloved he was by all who knew him,
And well he did deserve the same.
Oh! how could I so basely murder
One that was so good and kind?
I hope the Lord above will pardon
Me, that I may mercy find.

Alas! my days they are all numbered.
When I must give up my last breath;
For the horrid crimes that I’ve committed,
Die an ignominious death.
Oh! while I’ve life, let me entreat you
All, take warning by my fate!
Shew the ways of evil-doers,
Or you’ll repent when ’tis too late.

Attend unto my true confession–
A lesson it may be to you;
Give not your mind too much to pleasure,
Act upright — be just and true.
Let not the sight of gold e’er tempt you
To act dishonest to your friend:
For that alone caused me to murder,
And brought me to this untimely end.

Let not the world blame those two Females
Who, fellow-servants were with me;
For of the murder and the robbery,
None whatever knew but me.
No other crimes have I committed,
Save one single robbery;
Tho’ it was said that Etiza Grimwood
Basely murdered was by me.

Charles Dickens attended this hanging, mining the scene for Barnaby Rudge.

William Thackeray came too — he was becoming publicly engaged as a man troubled by capital punishment, and it was the first execution he had witnessed. (Actually, he turned away at the decisive moment.) Thackeray published an article about the experience in Fraser’s magazine, reflecting doubt at the salutary value of public executions and empathy with the young man’s scrambled mental state as he was raced from condemnation to the gallows in a mere fortnight.

At first, his statements are false, contradictory, lying. He has not repented then. His last declaration seems to be honest, as far as the relation of the crime goes. But, read the rest of his statement — the account of his personal history, and the crimes which he committed in his young days; them “how the evil thought came to him to put his hand to the work.” It is evidently the writing of a mad, distracted man. The horrid gallows is perpetually before him; he is wild with dread and remorse. Clergymen are with him ceaselessly; religious tracts are forced into his hands: night and day they ply him with the heinousness of his crime, and exhortations to repentance. Read through that last paper of his. By heaven, it is pitiful to read it. See the Scripture phrases brought in now and anon; the peculiar terms of tract-phraseology (I do not wish to speak of these often meritorious publications with disrespect). One knows too well how such language is learned-imitated from the priest at the bedside, eagerly seized and appropriated, and confounded by the poor prisoner.”

* Courvoisier’s Jack Sheppard reference triggered thunderous indictments of this text in the popular press — “a publication calculated to familiarise the mind with cruelties,” howled the London Examiner “and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual” and caused the stage adaptation to be censored (pdf).

Though Ainsworth had decades of writing ahead of him, it’s been argued that his reputation never fully recovered from this case, and that’s why he’s not in the canon. What he lacks in posthumous celebration he garnered in contemporary buzz; Ainsworth’s “Newgate novels” valorizing highwaymen helped to feed an enduring popular craze for hanging broadsides and “penny dreadfuls” and to mainstream a (commercialized) version of thieves’ cant. See The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868.

** See The Bar & The Old Bailey, 1750-1850. In a more unctuous vein, the bishop of London submitted a petition to the House of Lords demanding repeal of the right of defendants’ lawyers to make closing statements.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian scene

7 comments November 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, husband-and-wife murderers Frederick and Marie Manning (or Maria Manning) were publicly hanged together outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.

An image of Marie Manning (nee Marie de Roux) from the Victorian popular press — from this romantic biography of Tolstoyan length available free from Google books.

The felonious pair — she a Swiss-born domestic; he a shifty laborer with a penchant for the inside job — lured to dinner in their Bermondsey home a wealthy friend who had designs on the redheaded knockout, then murdered him for his loot and stuffed the limed body under the floorboards. They were apprehended separately on the lam.

As is typical when a heartthrob femme fatale stands in the dock, a sensational trial of the “here today, gone tomorrow” variety ensued. The crime, nicknamed “the Bermondsey Horror” (here (pdf) is a book chapter-scale recounting), had each accusing the other, with the outcome usual for this site.

A massive, jeering throng turned out to see the two off (Mrs. Manning’s choice of black satin for the occasion is said to have caused the look to go out of fashion).

Among that crowd was Charles Dickens,* who took a break from working on David Copperfield to write The Times a letter published Nov. 14 demanding that executions be removed within prison walls on account of the unedifying conduct of the spectators.

Sir — I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly — as it did — it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

… I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten.

Dickens would base a French maid named Mademoiselle Hortense in his next novel, Bleak House on Marie Manning.

This question of public as opposed to private hangings was a lively debate at the time, and Dickens’s view was hardly uncontested. A letter in response from one F.B. Head of Oxenton countered thus:

The merciful object of every punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge the past crime as to prevent its recurrence. Now, Mrs. Manning’s last moments clearly explain, or rather indisputably prove, the benefit which society practically derives from a public execution. … as for a few fleeting moments she stood, with bandaged eyes, beneath the gibbet, how unanswerably did the picture mutely expound the terror which the wicked very naturally have of being publicly hanged before the scum and refuse of society! “The whistlings — the imitations of Punch — the brutal jokes and indecent delight of the thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds,” so graphically described by Mr. Charles Dickens were — by her own showing — not only the most fearful portion of her sentence but, under Providence, these coarse ingredients may possibly have effected that momentary repentance which the mild but fervent exhortations of the chaplain had failed to produce.

But, besides the impolicy of divesting the death by law of a murderer of the most effective portion of its terrors, there are, Sir, I submit, higher and infinitely more important reasons, which make it our bounden duty to require that every criminal who suffers death should be executed in public.

So long as it shall be deemed advisable by us, by laws divine as well as human, to deprive the murderer of his life, the whole process of his trial, ending in an act of such awful responsiblity, ought to be performed in open day, in order that the community may at all events clearly see what it is they are doing — what it is they have done. The purple hands of the wretched sufferer sufficiently explain what the white nightcap hypocritically conceals, namely, the dreadful act that has been performed; and, although thieves and prostitutes may ridicule the convulsions they witness, there will, it is to be hoped, in a free country and with a free press, always be found among an English crowd some one fellow-creature possessing the kindly feelings of Mr. Charles Dickens, who, should he see sufficient reasons for doing so, will not only call upon the country most seriously to consider whether the punishment he delineates has not exceeded the offence, but, as an honest witness, will condemn and expose any unnecessary harshness or cruelty that may have accompanied it.”

Even the legendary British humor magazine Punch weighed in, with a famous cartoon skewering the mob who turned up for public hangings.**


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s rendition of the Mannings’ execution — turning its gaze not on the scaffold but on the unruly crowd beneath it. It comes with a poem.

Public executions would continue in England until 1868.

* Not the only literary big wheel in the crowd: Herman Melville also checked it out. No indication they bumped into each other, and no surprise: the crowd was so huge that at least one spectator was crushed to death against a police barricade. (As reported by Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, which numbers the onlookers at 30,000 and claims 2.5 million execution broadsheets were sold.)

** According to Dickens and Crime, Dickens actually observed the hanging with the Punch cartoonist who sketched “The Great Moral Lesson” (the two went in together to rent out a well-placed roof “for the extremely moderate sum of Ten Guineas”). That artist, John Leech, had illustrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a few years before.

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1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide

14 comments September 11th, 2008 Headsman

On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.

Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.

This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.

But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.

Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.

So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.

(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)

Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.

You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.

And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:

It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.

While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.

And he had this charming painting of her to boot:

Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”

This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)

From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.

Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:

It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.

He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.

* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.

** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.

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1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

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1796: Mastro Titta’s first execution of many

11 comments March 22nd, 2008 dogboy

A Catholic man with the name Giovanni Battiste (“John the Baptist”) Bugatti could hardly have had a more ironic role in church history than the man who, on this date in 1796, dispatched his first victim as official executioner of the Papal State. Nicholas Gentilucci was hanged for killing a clergyman and his coachman, then robbing two friars while on the lam; Gentilucci’s corpse was subsequently quartered.

Little is known about Gentilucci, but much is known of his then-17-year-old executioner, for Bugatti, who would become known simply as Mastro Titta, turned out to be the most individually prolific taker of life in turn-of-the-19th century Rome.

Bugatti was born in Rome in 1779 and, even while putting criminals of the state to death, lived and worked on the west side of the Tiber River as an umbrella painter. Executions were a side job, and these ghastly deeds were recognized as such by the church, which compensated him a paltry three cents of a Roman lira for each body.

“Minister of Justice”

Mastro Titta brandishes an executed woman’s head.

The original Mastro Titta — the titular corruption of the “Minister of Justice” — took responsibility for each of his “patients” (as he called them, and as they were notoriously referred to by others), dutifully noting each of the 516 in his memoir. He stood for 69 years as the primary administrator of the death penalty in papal Rome, killing variously by beheading, hanging, and use of the mallet. Some were charged with murder, others with conspiracy, others with more petty crimes, but all were found guilty by the court of judges chosen by the Church’s bishops and cardinals.

The Minister’s performances were not without an (increasingly practiced) flair, heavy on the religious symbolism. Bugatti’s residence on the west side of the river meant that, when he was to carry out a punishment, he had first to cross the river.

Initially, the executions were carried out in the Piazza del Popolo, but that location was retired in the 1820’s; it’s not clear how consistent the location was after this, but at least one later execution occurred near San Giovanni decollato, home to the group of monks dedicated to comforting the condemned even when the final blow didn’t occur at its doorstep. Regardless of the locale, a spectacle soon arose surrounding that crossing and the parade which followed, as documented by Italian dialect poet G.G. Belli in 1835 (presumably for the execution of Giovanni Orioli di Lugo on July 11 of that year):

The Dilettante at the Bridge

They approach: Attention: the ceremony is brief.
Behold the condemned, neck bare and stretched.
He is the first man of the opera, the Patient,
The Ace of Spades, lord of the fesitval.

And behold the professor that will soon be
The surgeon acting for the people
For three pence, the community,
He will cure the ills of their pained head!

But not the man on the left: the other, to the right.
He in the second place is the Assistant.
The proceedings wait for Mastro Titta.

Do you want the usual from me, who takes the head?
I who never miss it: I am consistent;
And I know him as well as I know the Pope.

The translation is largely mine, with help on some difficult sections from a well-written and complete description of Mastro Titta’s life and work here and here.

Just a Job

A pinch of snuff before I snuff you?

Bugatti was known for playing the role of executioner in a manner which left no doubt as to his feelings towards the act: it was his job, his service to the Church itself, undisturbed by any personal animus towards the condemned — particularly early in his career.

He often offered snuff to his victims and spoke briefly and quietly with them prior to the execution, likely ploys to ease the victim into his role in the spectacle. Dickens viewed one of Mastro Titta’s beheadings on 8 March 1845*, and, in his Pictures From Italy, he remarked on the callousness of the event.

In keeping with this attitude, most of the entries in Mastro Titta’s memoir are fewer than 20 words. They reflect a man who seeks to distance himself from the crowd’s bloodlust. A selection:

  • Tommaso Tintori, guilty of homicide, 28 February 1810″ (The first using the “new edifice for beheading from the French government” — that is, the guillotine)
  • “Pecorari Angel, of Poli, aged 29. Peasant guilty of premeditated homicide of one woman, condemned to «death as an example» in Poland on 21 January 1847.” (There were a number of prisoners sentenced in other Catholic parts of Europe sent to Rome for Titta’s ministrations.)
  • “Sabbatino Proietti, aged 25, «decapitated» in Rieti for petty theft and highway robbery and murder on 20 August 1853, died converted, executed through administration of justice at the public square at the Bridge.”
  • “Angelo Lisi di Alatri, found guilty of premeditated highway robbery and murder in Frosinone, «dead» on 30 April 1862.”

An Anomalous Man

Bugatti was born just seven years prior to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany becoming the first of the Italian states to abolish the death penalty. There, Leopold II barred torture and punishment of death, a decision heavily influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and a desire to distance his nation from Rome.

In the neighboring Papal State, however, the practice continued, the embodiment of the church’s power over its people in matters earthly and spiritual. Executions of the time performed for various reasons, but with a handful of exceptions, they were almost exclusively performed on persons in the lower class. Many relied on the use of torture or testimony from confessionals. Papal executions were carried out until the 1870s and only declared unnecessary (though not banned by the Church) by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.

A complete discussion of the role of executions in the Catholic Church is too much for this space,** but a man like Bugatti serves usefully to exemplify the absurdity endowed in these killings by the Catholic Church. Where the half-dozen popes who served over Bugatti thought such executions to be necessary for the control of the masses, they had no such ideas about nobles who committed crimes.

The execution itself consisted of a parade with masked priests, banners, scriptural readings, and sermonizing, culminating in the death of the condemned. John L Allen of the National Catholic Reporter described the treatment of these executions in that day as “a liturgy”, and descriptions from writers such as Lord Byron show a scene which could only be described as a mix of Catholic Mass and town festival.

Such ritualized killing came to contrast starkly with the Italian celebration of an anti-death penalty position, and the two stood at odds for over a century. In 1909, the topic was hot enough that a plaque glorifying two Italians executed by Bugatti in 1825 was erected; a dozen years later, its contents were concealed out of deference to Rome until after the Second Vatican Council. The commemorated, Angiolo Targhini and Leonida Montanari (here’s their Italian Wikipedia page), were convicted essentially of riling the people, and they were summarily beheaded; their story was the inspiration for Luigi Magni’s 1969 classic Nell’anno del Signore:

“So ends the long list of Bugatti.”

Mastro Titta was given an official residence, and at the end of his term, he was handsomely rewarded with a pension for his service — 30 scudi per year. His final executions were carried out on 17 August 1864, wearing his traditional red cloak (now on display at the Criminology Museum of Rome): Antonio Olietti of Rome and Domenico Antonio Demartini were beheaded for homicide.

The Minister of Justice was 85, four and some years from the end of his life, and the final line in his memoir reads, “So ends the long list of Bugatti. May that of his successor be shorter.”

Indeed it was.

The final executions in Rome occurred on 24 November 1868 at the hands of Antonio Balducci, Bugatti’s long-time apprentice; the event was marked by Pope Pius IX famously intoning in response to calls for a stay, “I can’t, and I don’t want to.” The last execution in the Papal State was of Agatino Bellomo on 9 July 1870, in Palestrina, shortly before the nascent unified Italy absorbed Rome.

Mastro Titta is still known in Italy,† but, adrift amid a particularly violent period of revolution, his legacy as papal executioner is largely lost to the rest of the world.

* The day’s guillotinee was Giovanni Vagnarelli, 26, from Augustine; he killed Bavarian Anna Cotten and robbed her, and her wife’s statement at confessional was used to convict Vagnarelli. Such confessional convictions were not uncommon, as Bugatti’s own memoir confirms.

** There’s surprisingly little reading out there about this topic, though it would seem ripe for a book or two. Here’s what I can find:

  • “Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome: The Papal Police in Perspective”, Steven Hughes, Journal of Social History, 1987.
  • “Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom”, James J. Megivern, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2003.
  • For a discussion of current discourse in Catholic teachings, this is rather interesting: “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Catholic Church and the Problem of the Death Penalty”, lecture by E. Christian Brugger, Asst. Prof. of Ethics, Dept. of Religious Studies, Loyola University, 2001.

† A half dozen kilometers from the bridge that Mastro Titta crossed on his way to carry out Papal justice now stands the Mastro Titta Pub. It is reportedly “tastefully done” and serves mostly Belgian beers.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Italy,Known But To God,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Papal States,Public Executions

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1845: An Italian highwayman, as witnessed by Dickens

5 comments March 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1845, Charles Dickens witnessed a man beheaded in Rome for robbery and murder.

At 33, Dickens was well-established in his field; he already had to his credit The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and others.

Dickens spent a good part of the mid-1840’s abroad, with extended stays in North America, Italy and Switzerland, although without much abating his prodigious output. He intended the travelogue Pictures From Italy to help finance his journeys; it met an unenthusiastic reception and rates distinctly among Dickens’ minor works.

This day’s events took place during the latter stages of Dickens’ stay in Italy and — as the distinctly proscriptive last paragraphs of this excerpt indicate — touch a social theme very pressing to the author, one to which he would soon return again. Years later, the utterly unedifying scene of the public guillotine would be fodder for Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, whose tragic protagonist has already appeared in these pages.

Of note also is Dickens’ implication — though he doesn’t quite state it outright — that the criminal was uncovered by a secret revealed under the seal of confession, a touchy point for the priesthood as any viewer of television crime dramas will certainly be aware. We have to allow a considerable latitude for a misapprehension on the traveler’s part here, especially given that Pictures as a whole caught considerable heat from the moment of its publication for its relentless anti-Catholicism. (Update: More on the use of confessionals in Papal Rome in this post about the Vatican’s headsman.)

Here’s the scene in its entirety:

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff. He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni decolláto (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them. Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.

At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. ‘Attention!’ was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man — six-and-twenty — vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.

He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front — a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.

There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Pictures from Italy is available free online from Project Gutenberg.

The date and description would indicate that Dickens witnessed the death of 26-year-old Giovanni Vagnarelli. (See this list of the Holy See’s executions.)

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Common Criminals,Guillotine,Italy,Known But To God,Murder,Papal States,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1793: Sydney Carton posing as Charles Darnay

10 comments December 9th, 2007 Headsman

On an unspecified date in December 1793 is set one of literature’s immortal execution scenes, when ne’er-do-well Sydney Carton heroically goes to the guillotine in the place of his aristocratic doppleganger Charles Darnay at the climax of A Tale of Two Cities.

In Charles Dickens‘ classic 1859 novel of the French Revolution, Darnay, the good-hearted scion of the cruel Evremonde line, falls prey to the Revolutionary Terror.

The dissolute, tormented Carton is the respectable Darnay’s literary dark twin, whose appearance he also happens to strikingly resemble. Driven by an unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, who stands in danger not only of losing her husband but of following him to the scaffold, Carton contrives to switch places with the doomed noble.

While those saved by his sacrifice flee for England, Carton goes to the guillotine in a batch of 52 condemned prisoners,* one of them a sweet and frightened girl he comforts tenderly.

His prophetic thoughts as he awaits the blade form the conclusion of the novel, and the last sentence ranks among literature’s most recognizable lines.

“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.

“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place — then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement — and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

A Tale of Two Cities is one of thousands of public-domain books available for free at Project Gutenberg. Stanford’s “Discovering Dickens” community reading project guide annotates the novel here.

* Never one for understatement, Dickens crowds his mass execution tableau with far too many extras. “The Terror” is usually dated from September 1793 through July 1794, but only during its bloodiest last two months would so many as 52 have been guillotined together; at the time of Carton’s execution, half as many would have constituted a large group.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Famous Last Words,Fictional,France,Guillotine,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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